February - April, 2016

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February 1. A few months ago I thought Donald Trump was a joke, and now I see him as an unstoppable juggernaut. Read this month old reddit comment about Trump's mastery of the media. I would go farther and say he has an intuitive understanding of mass psychology, and he's been laying the foundation for this run since the the 1990's. Because he has established a persona where people already expect him to say ridiculous things, he's gaffe-proof. Other candidates have to walk a tightrope between boring the voters and alienating them, while Trump is walking a highway where he can be popular and offensive at the same time. Somehow he can play the strong leader and play the clown.

Assuming it's Trump against Clinton in November, I see this as a repeat of 1996, where Trump is Bill Clinton, polarizing but charismatic, and Hillary is Bob Dole: unlikeable and unlucky. And Trump can easily rebrand himself as a moderate, because he has a long history of being a moderate before he talked like an extremist to win the primaries.

I don't think President Trump would ruin America, or save it. I would expect him to propose a bunch of simple-minded reforms, let congress rework them to fit the system, and where the reforms work he'll take credit, and where they fail he'll blame congress. The big doom scenario is if there's some disaster that shuts down congress, Trump takes temporary unchecked power, it goes to his head, and he doesn't give it up.

February 5. Last month my restless legs syndrome was really acting up. It's like an itch in my leg muscles that I can "scratch" by vigorously moving them. If you have it and you want a cure, try high-CBD marijuana edibles. I don't want a cure, because leg strength is correlated with brain fitness, and I can spend a half hour a night doing one-legged squats and heel lifts, not because of self-discipline, but because I have an overwhelming urge to do so.

If only I had an overwhelming urge to write novels or play music. We imagine that highly successful people have some kind of magical virtue, when really they have various restless syndromes that compel them to do things that other people happen to find valuable.

February 15. I love this short piece about How to Raise a Creative Child. The author starts with the observation that child prodigies tend to fizzle as adults because they were learning success on their parents' terms, instead of learning creativity. Then he drops this bomb:

One study compared the families of children who were rated among the most creative five percent in their school system with those who were not unusually creative. The parents of ordinary children had an average of six rules, like specific schedules for homework and bedtime. Parents of highly creative children had an average of fewer than one rule.

Also on the subject of creativity, Why Quantity Should be Your Priority. I've seen the anecdote about the ceramics class before, where students who were graded on quantity cranked out hundreds of pieces and eventually did much better work than students who were graded on quality and did only a few pieces. I doubt that it actually happened, but it would happen, and I would explain it like this: When you do work in the physical world, you learn things you could never learn by doing the work in your head.

February 17-19. From a reddit thread on one of my favorite subjects, game metaphors and the meaning of life, comes this insightful comment:

There is no "main quest" in life. Life is all side quests. Grind is what you do when the side quests you really want to complete are too difficult to pull off, so you resign yourself to doing some mind-numbingly monotonous shit that isn't rewarding in and of itself, but levels/gears you to get where you want to go and do what you want to do. But the gear, the skills and the henchmen are only important if having them on their own satisfies you.

If you treat life like a levelling treadmill, it's going to end up as unrewarding as grinding one in a game. It feels great to accomplish something and gain an extra level, and other players might ooh and ahh at your equipment, but in the end you just might find yourself envying the ones that played the game passing up all the leet gear and instead spent every minute laughing their asses off beating the game with the broom.

Another angle on motivation, structured procrastination: if you have a big job you're putting off, it's psychologically easier to do other things, so a good motivational strategy is to put something at the top of your list that seems more important than it is, and put the stuff you really want to do lower on the list so you feel like you're cheating when you do it. This reminds me of fantasy author Joe Abercrombie saying that when he writes he feels like he's looking at porn.

I think this is related to the fact that creative works that stand the test of time are rarely respectable in their own time, either because they're too commercial or too weird. This makes sense because the more you feel like you're doing something trashy, the less you feel constrained by conventional standards, and the easier it is to unlock creativity.

March 16. Magic Mushrooms May Permanently Alter Personality. Specifically they increase openness, which normally slowly decreases for adults. Here's a reddit comment thread with lots of reports of good changes from psilocybin mushrooms, and a few reports of bad changes. From another thread, this comment speculates that mushrooms can be harmful if they open up repressed anxiety faster than people can integrate it. I would recommend trying cannabis first, which does the same thing but more mildly.

Also, The Trip Treatment is a long Michael Pollan article about the benefits of psilocybin. I'm wondering how this relates to computer-generated artificial worlds: in 50 years if everyone is tripping, will it make us totally uninterested in that kind of thing, or just more discriminating?

My personal experience with mushrooms is unusual. Instead of a fun head trip I get a difficult body trip, like being drunk and having the flu. I feel stupid, dizzy, nauseated, feeble, itchy, and have an overwhelming urge to curl up in silence and darkness. On this long list of cognitive and visual effects, the only thing I get is mindfulness: the inability to focus my attention anywhere but inward. But then, about a day and a half later, I feel energetic and motivated, and my brain feels like it's been rebooted, or taken apart and cleaned. So despite not having any fun, I'll probably continue to use mushrooms a few times a year.

March 18. Deleted reddit comment, from a thread asking people what changed their mind about suicide:

What "changed" me? A sunny spring day, and the rain clouds were moving in. I went past a daycare where a little girl was dancing around, away from all the kids, by herself. "You just never know." I thought to myself. What if I had killed myself, all that long time ago.

March 30. Motivation Part One: Last week, going off on a tangent while answering an email, I figured out what I mean when I accuse people of puritanism, and my metaphor is diet. Your diet is your body's business, and maybe your head can help by reading about nutritional studies, but some people have dietary restrictions that are nothing about their bodies and all about their heads: I won't eat that thing that contradicts some story my head tells itself to make life feel meaningful.

In the same way, you have a motivational body, or a motivational metabolism, like an engine inside you that needs to keep going, and if it stalls you get depressed. Your engine doesn't care if your head thinks that some activity is a waste of time or something done by uncool people -- it just needs to stay in the flow of doing one fun thing after another. Obviously you should avoid anything that has a record of destroying lives, like recreational opiates. But I've found that when I'm spending time playing video games or watching sports or listening to music on cannabis, it does not reduce my overall productivity, and it might even increase it by keeping my wheels spinning when I'm not doing something "useful".

Two quotes from Ecclesiastes: Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might... In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that.

April 1. Motivation Part Two: Last week I wrote that nothing I've done in real life matches games for rewarding moment-to-moment action (but writing can be close) and someone asked me, what about the stuff I did on the land? This illustrates a principle that you can only really understand with life experience: what makes a project seem rewarding from a distance is completely different from what makes it feel rewarding as you're doing it, and it's normal to have one without the other.

Building a cabin sounds wonderful, but it's such a massively complex and alien project that I just felt overwhelmed; and how-to books, with thousands of things that have to be done in just the right difficult and expensive way, only made it worse. Growing fruit trees is something I can wrap my head around, but it's not something where you can get in the flow, and there's little connection between effort and reward: I put countless hours into trees that died, while the most successful thing I planted was a blue elder that I probably spent ten minutes on.

One thing I did up there that felt rewarding was throwing logging debris into piles. It has clear benefits, making the land more beautiful and walkable, and making habitat for critters, and every little action is clearly visible permanent progress. Cutting lower branches off trees to open up the woods and reduce fire danger was similar. In hindsight, by writing the landblog, I was carrying readers on my shoulders so they could enjoy stuff I wasn't enjoying enough myself, and if I had it to do over again, I would do a lot more stuff that's fun to do and boring to tell other people about. This is good life advice in general.

April 4. Motivation Part Three: I was watching an interview with UFC champion Miesha Tate, and she was talking about how she got obsessed with wrestling in high school. Her school didn't have a girls wrestling team, so she would wrestle the boys and always lose. How was this motivating? Because every time she lost she learned stuff, which she applied to her next match to lose by a smaller margin. She established a rhythm -- fight, learn, adjust, fight -- with positive feedback in two places: the reward of learning and the reward of coming closer to winning.

I do the same thing when I write about music: listen, notice stuff, put it into words, and use those words to guide my next round of listening, approaching but never reaching full understanding.

How often does life work like this? In social behavior, when you make a mistake, you rarely find out exactly what you did wrong, and you usually don't get another chance with that same person -- unless they're a family member, and then you're just learning to match their particular dysfunction, which will not work when you're out in the world getting one chance each with people who have completely different dysfunctions. It's a miracle that anyone ever becomes socially competent.

In school, when you take a test or turn in a project, they tell you what you did wrong, but you don't get another chance -- you're stuck with that low grade for life, and then you move on to badly learning something new. (Some educational reforms are trying to fix this.)

You do get good feedback and multiple chances when you're being trained for a job -- but only if your trainers are good, and pretty soon you reach a plateau where you're no longer learning, just going through a routine for a paycheck.

We need to set up a society where we spend our lives enjoying getting better at skills that make life better for everyone, and this is going to take a really long time.

April 6. Motivation Part Four: Motivation only becomes a problem in a special case, which is historically rare but really common right now. We have social pressure to do certain things, but no social support.

Imagine you're stocking shelves at Walmart. Everyone knows the job sucks, so the managers take care of motivation: they give you a clearly defined task and if you do it you get money and if you don't you get fired. I would call this vertical external support, and it gets the job done, but the better system is horizontal external support: you're working with your friends toward a clear goal, and the motivation is that you don't want to let them down, and also they're right next to you helping you through rough spots.

At the other extreme, I think the only purely internal motivation is obsession: your whole being is engaged with a task, and other people are not just unnecessary -- they get in the way. Even on a project that other people don't know about, your beliefs about how they will receive it can get in the way. That's why I've been failing to write fiction, because I've been thinking about it backwards, more in terms of its public reception than what I enjoy writing moment by moment. And that's why George RR Martin can't finish the Game of Thrones books, because at first he was creating his own universe for fun, and now he's carrying the burden of the expectations of millions of people, who are giving him no help with the actual writing.

My point is, the whole world is more and more like this, and it happened accidentally through good intentions. You're no longer stuck doing the same job your parents did, but now that you're free, you're still burdened by social pressures: if people ask "what do you do?" you're supposed to say "I work at a nonprofit indigenous something something and build artisan furniture in my spare time," not "I work at a convenience store and write Harry Potter erotica." And you're supposed to carve out this almost impossible perfect life completely on your own. At best your parents will keep you from living on the streets and you'll get predictable advice from strangers on the internet.

I see two ways out of this. I mean, the thousand year solution is to build a complex society with a wide perspective and a high standard of living, where every task that holds society together is done voluntarily by healthy social groups. But right now I see two ways people are responding to this difficult world. Young people crave social collapse: life becomes mentally easier because you're driven by survival and (ideally) surrounded by friends, but it's physically harder. Now that I'm an old person, physically weaker but mentally stronger, my solution is to not care what people think. Give me an unconditional basic income and let me follow my unfashionable obsessions.

April 18. Busy and distracted? Everybody has been, since at least 1710. This Aeon essay raises important issues about attention and authority, but I would frame it differently: with the Age of Reason in the 1700's, human culture broke free from the Church and ancestral traditions, and turned into a free-for-all, in which one secular authority after another has tried to create Utopia by forcing everyone to pay attention to what it thinks is important. This struggle continued through the 20th century, but the problem is that you can't force attention over the long term -- it has to be earned. People need to feel immediate benefits from what they give their attention to.

The word "moral" appears, in some form, 33 times in the essay. I don't know what "moral" even means, but I know what it means in this context: people appeal to morality when they perceive a conflict between the best thing to do and the fun thing to do.

Here's my new definition of Utopia: any human system in which the best thing to do and the fun thing to do are the same thing. I think some hunter-gatherer tribes came pretty close to that, and we're still clumsily learning how to do it in large complex societies.

Back to the subject of attention, it leads straight to the subject of social media, video games, and other high-tech superstimuli. At first this is puzzling: attention-grabbing distractions are more powerful than ever, but the authorities are complaining about them less. I mean, lots of people say that smartphone apps are destroying civilization, but they're shouting into the wind. The most powerful institutions in the world -- Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple -- are not fighting against distraction but using it to increase their own power. The war on distraction is over and distraction won!

What happens next? Like oil, human attention is a finite resource, and its extraction is well into diminishing returns: if there were twice as many ads, we would not give twice as much attention to ads, maybe only ten percent more (and with declining income we're not even buying as much advertised stuff). And just as oil is being used to manufacture junk and push air out of the way of cars, the powers that own human attention are not channeling it to make the world better. I'm tempted to predict doom, but then, the powers that own human attention have never used it responsibly, and we're still doing okay.

April 20. This time of year I see all the work my neighbors are putting into their lawns, while my back yard is prettier with less work and less water. That's a cherry tree in the center, a peach and apricot back behind it, a strawberry patch below it and to the right, raspberries on the right against the fence, tomato starts in the lower left, and the purple flowers are grape hyacinth that survive the dry summers and spread by themselves. Of course the yellow flowers are dandelions, which are completely edible, attract pollinators, and improve the soil. They're one of the most helpful and beautiful plants in the world, and yet people see them as a pest and try to eradicate them (and fail).

For me this goes beyond horticulture and into metaphysics. Why do people go out of their way to make the world more difficult? Why are the most controlled places so ugly while neglected places are often beautiful?

I'm an optimist. A pessimist thinks we live in the best of all possible worlds and it still sucks, and I think it takes a lot of effort to make the world this bad and it's still pretty good. But when I think about it more, making the world worse is physically difficult and emotionally rewarding, because you're destroying what you've found and replacing it with what you've made, while making the world better is physically easy and emotionally painful, because you're expanding your consciousness to integrate the alien.

April 25. The Evolutionary Argument Against Reality:

Experiment after experiment has shown that if we assume that the particles that make up ordinary objects have an objective, observer-independent existence, we get the wrong answers. The central lesson of quantum physics is clear: There are no public objects sitting out there in some preexisting space.

I've reached a similar conclusion from deep study of subjects like paranormal phenomena, fringe science, and even conspiracy theory. Never mind quantum particles -- even if we're talking about human-scale objects and historical events, we're just patching together the illusion of an objective world from experiences that are fundmentally inconsistent.

April 29. Last week I posted this link, People Want Power Because They Want Autonomy, and after some reader comments and some thinking, my interpretation is much more cynical.

The first problem is that our language misrepresents the whole issue. Why did they use the word "autonomy" and not the word "freedom"? Because "freedom" has too much baggage -- you can't take the word seriously when there's a building called the Freedom Tower. But "autonomy" means basically the same thing and only hides what we don't understand.

The difference between "freedom" and "power" seems clear: freedom means doing what you want, and power means telling other people what to do. But what if you cut someone off in traffic? To you, it feels like freedom, but to the other person it feels like power. More generally, freedom and power are propaganda words for talking about conflicts of interest. If there is no conflict of interest, if you want to do something that doesn't bother anyone else in any way, then you can just do it -- you don't need to play the "freedom" card to justify yourself.

Going back to the study, "people want power because they want autonomy," all that means is that we want to have our way without visibly stopping other people from having their way. "Power" sounds like fun, but in practice, unless you're sadistic or psychopathic, it's unpleasant to make other people do stuff they'd rather not do. This is why, when society has a power inbalance, it tends to hide it from the people who have power, because they want to feel like all they have is freedom. This is how Paul Graham could write his infamous defense of wealth inequality -- he was thinking of wealth as a benign freedom to buy luxuries, and not the power to make people without wealth serve his interests.

I think the best place to draw the line is not between power and freedom, or between the individual and the group, but between a good social order and a bad social order; and this difference has something to do with equality of influence, absence of punishment for saying no, and the awarding of positions of authority based on the ability to use authority for the good of everyone.

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